Ken Russell got Oliver Reed and Alan Bates to wrestle naked, turned Vanessa Redgrave into a demonic nun and cast Ringo Starr as the pope. Critics and mainstream audiences often hated his films. Actors and admirers loved him.
Only a few of his movies were commercial successes. The best known were “Women in Love,” an Academy award-winning adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s novel, and “Tommy,” which turned The Who’s rock opera into a psychedelic extravaganza complete with appearances from Elton John, Eric Clapton and Tina Turner.
Russell was fascinated with altered mental states and loved horror, religious turmoil and Gothic excess. Critics could be sniffy. Pauline Kael once wrote that Russell’s films “cheapen everything they touch.”
But many in the film industry felt his influence was underrated.
Twiggy, who starred in Russell’s 1971 film “The Boy Friend,” said directors like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas “say that as a kid they would watch Ken Russell movies. I don’t think he got the attention he deserved.”
Glenda Jackson, who won a best actress Academy Award for “Women in Love,” said Russell was an “incredible visual genius.”
“It’s an absolute shame that the British film industry has ignored him,” she said. “It’s an absolute disgrace... He broke down barriers for so many people.”
“Women in Love,” in 1969, was one of Russell’s biggest hits, earning Academy Award nominations for the director and for writer Larry Kramer, as well as winning Jackson an Oscar. It included one of the decade’s most famous scenes – a nude wrestling bout between Bates and Reed.
Reed said at the time that the director was “starting to go crazy.”
“Before that he was a sane, likable TV director,” Reed said. “Now he’s an insane, likable film director.”
Paul McGann, who starred in Russell’s “The Rainbow,” said the director “encouraged an irreverent joyousness on set and usually got it.”
“I remember him sat on a camera crane in kaftan and sandals shouting to us through a megaphone: ‘Even greater heights of abandon!’“ McGann said. “He’s how you imagined, and hoped, a movie director would be.”
Born in the English port of Southampton in 1927, Russell fell in love with the movies as a child.
In one of his last interviews, he said his whole life, including his filmmaking, had been affected by the death of his cousin Marion, who stepped on a land mine when they were children.
“There was nothing I could do, that was the end of her,” he said in the interview for the Sky Arts TV channel. “She was blown to pieces. It was something I couldn’t get out of my mind and it remained with me forever.”
Attracted by the romance of the sea, Russell attended Pangbourne Nautical College before joining the Merchant Navy at 17 as a junior crew member on a cargo ship bound for the Pacific. He became seasick, soon realized he hated naval life and was discharged after a nervous breakdown.
Desperate to avoid joining the family’s shoe business, he studied ballet and tried his hand at acting before accepting he was not much good at either. He then studied photography, for which he did have a talent, and became a fashion photographer before being hired to work on BBC arts programs, including profiles of the poet John Betjeman, comedian Spike Milligan and playwright Shelagh Delaney.
“When there were no more live artists left, we turned to making somewhat longer films about dead artists such as Prokofiev,” Russell once said.
These quickly evolved from conventional documentaries into something more interesting.
“At first we were only allowed to use still photographs and newsreel footage of these subjects, but eventually we sneaked in the odd hand playing the piano (in ‘Prokofiev’) and the odd back walking through a door,” Russell said. “By the time a couple of years had gone by, those boring little factual accounts of the artists had evolved into evocative films of an hour or more which used real actors to impersonate the historical figures.”
Music played a central role in many of Russell’s films, including “The Music Lovers” in 1970, about the composer Tchaikovsky – Russell sold it to the studio with the pitch “it’s about a nymphomaniac who falls in love with a homosexual.”
The same unorthodox approach to costume drama informed 1975’s “Lisztomania,” which starred Roger Daltrey of The Who as 19th-century heartthrob Franz Liszt, with Beatles drummer Starr playing the pope.
“The Boy Friend,” a 1971 homage to 1930s Hollywood musicals starring supermodel Twiggy, and Russell’s 1975 adaptation of “Tommy,” were musicals of a different sort, both marked by the director’s characteristic visual excess.
Russell’s darker side was rarely far away. “Dante’s Inferno,” a 1967 movie about the poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, played up the differences between Rossetti’s idealized view of his wife and her reality as a drug addict.
Russell was even more provocative in his 1970 film “The Dance of the Seven Veils: A Comic Strip in Seven Episodes.” It presented the composer Richard Strauss as a crypto-Nazi, and showed him conducting Rosenkavalier waltzes while SS men tortured a Jew.
“The Devils,” a 1971 film starring Redgrave as a 17th-century nun in the grip of demonic possession, was heavily cut for its U.S. release and is due to be released on DVD in Britain for the first time in 2012.
Russell told The Associated Press in 1987 that he found such censorship “so tedious and boring.” He called the American print of “The Devils” ‘‘just a butchered nonsense.”
Admirers luxuriated in his overripe, gothic sensibility – on display once again in “Gothic,” a 1987 film about the genesis of Mary Shelley’s horror tale “Frankenstein” replete with such hallucinatory visuals as breasts with eyes and mouths spewing cockroaches.
Russell said his depiction of a drug-addled Percy Bysshe Shelley was an accurate depiction of the time.
“Everyone in England in the 19th century was on a permanent trip. He must have been stoned out of his mind for years,” Russell said. “I know I am.”
Russell’s fascination with changing mental states also surfaced in 1980 film “Altered States,” a rare Hollywood foray for him, starring William Hurt as a scientist experimenting with hallucinogens. It was poorly received.
Later films included the comic horror thriller “The Lair of the White Worm” in 1989, which gave an atypical early role to Hugh Grant as a vampire worm-battling lord of the manor.
Russell also directed operas and made the video for Elton John’s “Nikita.”
Married four times, Russell is survived by his wife Elize Tribble and his children.
The director’s son, Alex Verney-Elliott, said Russell died in a hospital on Sunday following a series of strokes.
“My father died peacefully,” Verney-Elliott said. “He died with a smile on his face.”
His widow said Russell was working on a musical feature film of “Alice in Wonderland” when he died.
Funeral details were not immediately announced.